Elsa strengthened into a hurricane Tuesday night as it barreled up Florida’s west coast, threatening heavy rain, flooding and high winds.
The storm intensified from a tropical storm into a Category 1 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph by 7:45 p.m., the National Hurricane Center said. Its center was around 100 miles south-southwest of Tampa.
The hurricane is expected to approach Florida’s northern Gulf coast overnight and make landfall Wednesday morning, the hurricane center said. But its effects will stretch far from the actual center of the storm.
“It really is about all those impacts well away from the storm, as well as inside the storm,” Ken Graham, director of the hurricane center, said late Tuesday afternoon.
Hurricane warnings were in effect from Tampa Bay all the way north to the Steinhatchee River in the state’s Big Bend region. A Category 1 hurricane is strong enough to topple trees, send streets signs flying and damage unanchored mobile homes.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded a state of emergency to include more counties Tuesday. Tampa International Airport suspended all commercial operations at 5 p.m. due to the storm with plans to resume Wednesday morning. Power company Duke Energy said it called in crews from out of state.
Many people in vulnerable Gulf Coast counties like Pasco, Hernando and Citrus, which are home to lots of retirees from the north, live in mobile homes.
Farther south, Pinellas and Hillsborough county officials were breaking out the sandbags as residents in flood-prone sections of St. Petersburg and Tampa braced for storm surges of 2 to 4 feet. And by 3:30 p.m., there were already nearly 2,000 reports of power outages, according to The Tampa Bay Times.
Hurricane watches for the western coast of Florida during the month of July are rare. Going back to 2008, there is no other instance of the National Weather Service in Tampa Bay issuing a hurricane watch in July.
By sunrise Tuesday, Elsa was battering the Florida Keys with tropical storm-force winds and torrential rainfall. Some of the highest wind gusts clocked included 62 mph in Key West and 64 mph in Sand Key.
By midmorning, Elsa was a 60-mph tropical storm and showing signs of strengthening as it passed just west of Key West.
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